The Curious Case of the Strange Transit Signal

Something very strange is happening over at KIC 8462852. But, it may not be an alien intelligence.


NASA’s extrasolar, planet-hunting space telescope, found some odd changes in the luminosity of a star — KIC 8462852— located in the constellation of Cygnus, about 1,400 light-years from Earth. In a recent paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers reported that:

“Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”

But despite several years of monitoring, astronomers have yet to come up with a feasible, natural explanation. And, this has conspiracy theorists, alien hunters and SciFi enthusiasts very excited. Could it be a massive alien structure shielding the star, or is there simpler and natural, but less amazing possibility? Occam’s razor could well prevail again, but I certainly hope not in this case.

From Wired:

Last week, astronomers—amateur and pro—got excited about some strange results from the Kepler Space Telescope, the NASA observatory tasked with searching for Earth-like planets. As those planets orbit their own distant suns, periodically blocking light from Kepler’s view, the telescope documents the flickers. But over the last several years, it has picked up a strange pattern of blips from one star in particular, KIC 8462852.

Light from that star dramatically plunges in irregular intervals—not the consistent pattern you’d expect from an orbiting planet. But what could possibly cause such a thing? Gotta be aliens, right? Clearly someone—something—has assembled a megastructure around its sun, like that hollow Celestial head in Guardians of the Galaxy. Or maybe it’s a solar array, collecting energy-giving radiation and preventing light from reaching NASA’s telescope.

This, of course, is almost certainly poppycock. When you’re searching the vast expanse of space, lots of things look like they could be signs of extraterrestrial life. Astronomical observers are constantly looking for tiny glimmers of information in the mess of noise that streams through space toward Earth, and often, things that at first look like signals end up being mirages. This has all happened before; it will all happen again. For example:


In 1967, astronomer Jocelyn Bell was monitoring signals from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, trying to analyze the behavior of quasars, energy-spewing regions surrounding supermassive black holes within distant galaxies. What she found, though, was a series of regular pulses, always from the same part of the sky, that she labeled LGM-1: Little Green Men. Soon, though, she found similar signals coming from another part of the sky, and realized that she wasn’t seeing messages from two different alien civilizations: It was radiation from a spinning, magnetized neutron star—the first measured pulsar.

Sparks at Parkes

In 1998, astronomers at the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia started noticing mysterious radio signals called perytons—unexplained, millisecond-long bursts. The researchers there didn’t immediately cry alien, though; they could tell that the radio signals were terrestrial in origin, because they showed up across the entire spectrum monitored by the telescope. They didn’t know until this year, however, exactly where those emissions came from: a microwave oven on the observatory’s campus, which released a short, powerful radio signal when staffers opened its door in the middle of heating.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Flux time series for KIC 8462852 showing different portions of the 4-year Kepler observations. Courtesy: T. S. Boyajian et al, Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the flux?